May Superlatives, 2023

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…


Phase Six by Jim Shepard. This is the best book about the immediate onset of, and response to, a pandemic that I’ve ever read. Unlike most pandemic literature (for example: Emily St John Mandel’s wonderful Station Eleven), Phase Six is very closely focused on the first few weeks and months after a new pathogen is released into the environment due to the thawing of Greenlandic permafrost. Jim Shepard digs deep to produce an incredibly well-researched picture of how the CDC, WHO, and healthcare centres might respond, which I found fascinating to read in its own right. I love medical detail, especially epidemiology, and the way Shepard has woven in references to Covid-19 in what was clearly a later draft of this novel only emphasises how realistic his original version was. However, Shepard also transcends this material to tell the human stories of a handful of characters caught up in this pandemic; the abrupt and open ending is intentionally frustrating, but also beautiful, speaking to how our own personal stories always finish before we want them to. This makes Phase Six sound like a dark and difficult read, but I didn’t find it so. In many ways, it’s uplifting, emphasising co-operation and collaboration between humans rather than selfishness. This is not a dystopian novel, but a realistic exploration of how people respond to adversity, and the power as well as the limitations of scientific research. If the Wellcome Book Prize had still been active in 2021, this would have been a perfect winner.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…


… Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica, trans. Sarah Moses. This collection of very short stories has echoes of a number of other collections I’ve read recently about girls and women, sex and violence; the stories that worked better for me in Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird, like ‘Roberto’ and ‘Unamuno’s Boxes’, are reminiscent of writers like Julia Armfield, Carmen Maria Machado and Kate Folk, whereas the more experimental and bizarre pieces, like ‘Candy Pink’ and ‘Dishwasher’, reminded me more of Irenosen Okojie‘s stories with their accumulation of detail, a style I’ve struggled with in the past. Most of the stories aim to shock and I found that, once I’d worked out the pattern, I was often just waiting for the twist ending, so although they are tonally different, they also feel very similar. I wasn’t greatly impressed. I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review.

The Book I Just Simply Enjoyed The Most This Month Was…


… Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld. Sittenfeld is such a reliable joy for me; if you exclude her bizarre Eligible, I’ve loved everything she’s ever written. And her latest novel is just as captivating, if not as complex as some of her other work. Sally works as a scriptwriter on comedy sketch show The Night Owls [Saturday Night Live]. When her friend Danny hooks up with a movie star, she’s frustrated enough at this latest example of a trend to propose a sketch that she calls ‘The Danny Horst Rule’: men often date and marry women far more beautiful and successful than them, but ordinary women never end up with celebrity men. Of course, before Sally has even finished writing her sketch, she’s met pop idol Noah, who seems interested in her – but obviously, he can’t be. Can he? The first third of this novel was the most truly satisfying for me, as Sittenfeld convincingly explores the way Sally’s show is put together, with some great observations on how comedy sketches are written, and traces her developing connection with Noah as well as her sparky friendships with her colleagues. The rest of the book, which relies heavily on emails, felt slighter, giving Sittenfeld less opportunity to show what she’s good at, which is mapping complicated human connections. Nevertheless, it made me reflect that if all romance was written this well, I might be more of a fan of the genre.

The Book That Was Ruined By Its Protagonist This Month Was…


… Girl In Ice by Erica Ferencik. I ought to have loved this slow-burn speculative thriller, which ticked all my boxes. Set in a remote Arctic research station, it focuses on the mysterious thawing of a small girl, alive, from the ice. How did she survive, and will she continue to do so? At the same time, there’s a nice touch of horror with the introduction of freezing katabatic winds that are striking people unawares throughout the world and killing them on the spot. Ferencik is a great writer, and the Arctic landscape is beautifully evoked. BUT, I could not handle Girl In Ice‘s protagonist, a linguist called Val who suffers from such crippling anxiety that she has barely travelled anywhere in her life and relies heavily on medication, which she starts to supplement with alcohol once she’s forced to travel out to the Arctic to try and understand what the unfrozen girl is saying. I’m absolutely on board with novels exploring this kind of anxiety and trauma, but I just don’t think it can be explored well in this kind of thriller, and yet novelists keep on trying to do it (see also: The Dark by Emma Haughton). In this sort of book, I really want a competent and practical protagonist who’s able to deal sensibly with other people. It made me reflect on why the nervous, incompetent protagonist of Ferencik’s first, brilliant thriller, The River At Night, worked so well for me: one, she wasn’t faced with urgent research mysteries, and two, her apprehension about going white-water rafting turned out to be totally reasonable and justified! Other readers, though, might warm to Val more than I did.

The Best Novel I Read About Capitalism This Month Was…


… For The Win by Cory Doctorow. Set between LA, South China and Mumbai in the near-future, this novel follows a group of young people, mostly teenagers, who are getting exploited by capitalist bosses in their low-wage, long-hour jobs. However, its major focus isn’t the traditional setting of the factory but the virtual world of online multiplayer games, where most of the protagonists are making money by churning through quests to earn virtual gold and level up avatars that can be sold on to richer players. ‘Gold farming’ in these games is technically illegal, but there’s little the game companies can do about it. This means, though, that gold farmers are vulnerable to mistreatment, getting locked out of their workplaces – internet cafes – or having their pay cut if they dare to complain. Big Sister Nor, who started off organising workers in the ‘real world’, now leads trade union Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, or the ‘Webblies’, playing on the ‘Wobblies’ of the early twentieth-century US. The Webblies are trying to organise workers across borders, breaking down old rules about unionisation, which is often about resisting undercutting by foreign labour; but they have all the power of the internet on their side.

For The Win is both a fast-paced techno-thriller and a crash course in basic economics and how workers might stand up for their rights. It’s now more than a decade old, but it possibly feels even more relevant today than it did when it was published. I loved the way that Doctorow weaves his accessible explanations into the story, and how this information becomes crucial as the plot unfolds. I also loved that this is a story without individual villains. There are people who do bad things, but the antagonist is the bigger social and economic system rather than any of our narrating characters, even those who hold power in companies like Nintendo. This was apparently badged as YA when it was first sold, but it definitely doesn’t feel like a young adult novel – though I’m sure many teenagers would get a lot out of it. It’s basically a serious, thoughtful and yet still fun examination of what Marx would have called alienated labour. Brilliant. I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary

The Best Summer Thriller I Read This Month Was…


… The New Wife by JP Delaney. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Delaney’s earlier thrillers, but this felt like a big, and interesting, change of pace. (The cover art reflects the way his other books have been marketed, but doesn’t feel right at all for this novel – don’t be put off!). Finn and his sister grew up in Mallorca on a decaying finca, but after an abusive childhood, both of them left in their teens and haven’t looked back. Now their father has died and they’ve inherited the finca – but their father’s new wife, Ruensa, is still living there with her adult daughter Roze. Finn travels to Mallorca to sort out the legalities, but is stunned by what he finds – Ruensa and Roze have transformed the finca and its grounds, planning to set it up as a functioning agrotourism spot and a hostel for hikers. Moreover, he’s immediately attracted to Roze, who draws him in with her mix of lightheartedness, practicality, and fragility. But was it really a coincidence that Finn’s father died so shortly after his marriage? And will Ruensa and Roze give up their fledging business so easily?

In short: this is a retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s unforgettable My Cousin Rachel, and Delaney does capture some of its beauty and menace, gorgeously evoking his Mallorcan setting. As with Rachel in the du Maurier novel, we both want Roze to be what she seems and fear that she isn’t – Delaney makes it completely convincing that Finn would be entranced by her against his better judgment. A late twist is effective, but I did feel that, unlike My Cousin Rachel, The New Wife then leans a little too hard into one interpretation of the characters, despite Delaney’s efforts to keep the ending open. Du Maurier said that she deliberately never made up her mind about Rachel’s true motives; Delaney admits, in his afterword, that he does know what Roze was about. Nevertheless, this is perfect summer reading.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 20th July.

The Best Debut Novel I Read This Month Was…


… Neon Roses by Rachel Dawson. It’s 1984 in the valleys of South Wales, and Eluned is tired of her boyfriend, her job and her life. In the midst of the miners’ strike, having fun is a distant memory, as all her wages need to go to support her family. Even worse, her sister Mabli is sleeping with the enemy, being wined and dined by one of the policemen who oppress the miners on the pickets. When LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) turn up in Eluned’s village, her attraction to lesbian June makes her realise why she has never quite fit in with her community’s expectations – but can she really leave her whole life behind? This accomplished novel vividly evokes a range of settings across Britain in the mid-1980s, from rural Wales to Cardiff to London to Manchester. It has all the verisimilitude of Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses but, for me, much more originality and heart. As a historian of this period, I loved how effortlessly Dawson brought queer communities and protest movements to life, weaving in detail without over-explaining or overloading. I know much less about the specifics of her South Wales setting, but I felt that was also beautifully done; Dawson refuses to pander to the reader by explaining the ‘Wenglish’ that many of her characters use, but I never felt lost. There’s a depth to this novel that is absent from most twentieth-century historical fiction.

My only question is: why didn’t I love it more, as it literally ticks all my boxes? This is probably a me problem rather than a book problem, but I never quite warmed to Eluned as much as I wanted to, despite the homophobia and hardship she faces, and the solidarity she shows. (So great to read a book that understands that identifying as a lesbian, especially in the 1980s, is about more than who you sleep with.) On a macro level, she never seemed to truly experience any vulnerability, although I can appreciate that Dawson puts her in many situations where she’s positioned as vulnerable; something about what was happening to Eluned on the outside and what was happening in her head didn’t quite connect. On a micro level, I wondered if this wasn’t helped by the slightly detached prose, which keeps us at a fair distance from Eluned (Dawson continually uses ‘Eluned’ when ‘she’ would have done, and this jolted me outside of her consciousness). I wanted to fall in love with Eluned and June, and I just didn’t. Nevertheless, a brilliant debut. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Re-Read That Made Me Think The Most About Rereading This Month Was…

Screenshot 2023-05-29 at 08.56.32

… The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank. I adored this novel when I first read it aged twenty, in 2007; I re-read it in 2008 and 2009, and was equally captivated each time. Last summer, I re-read Bank’s debut, The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing, which I never had liked as much, and commented ‘I enjoyed revisiting Girls’ Guide, but I have much higher hopes for [rereading] The Wonder Spot’. Both books follow a similar trajectory, tracing the life of a young Jewish woman struggling with jobs and dating; in The Wonder Spot, our heroine is Sophie. I do still think The Wonder Spot is better than Girls’ Guide; the humour is subtler, and Bank has abandoned the tics that annoyed me in her first novel. But, I was disappointed! Although I still admired Bank’s observational skill and the way she doesn’t feel the need to tell the reader everything, I couldn’t remember why I had once loved The Wonder Spot so much.

I think this was a book that spoke much more to my younger self; I intensely re-read it during the period of my life when I was struggling the most with romantic relationships, meeting men (that was my first mistake) who messed me around, played games or just weren’t right. And The Wonder Spot is incredibly good at showing us, rather than telling us, why Sophie’s relationships don’t work out. Most of the chapters in the book stand alone as short stories that dissect the behaviour of men who seem to have potential, but just aren’t the one; I especially enjoyed ‘Teen Romance’ and ‘The One After You’, which have the most mature takes on Sophie’s love life. More than fifteen years on, though, this reminded me too much of the Disaster Women novels that are now so popular, although Sophie is definitely Gen X rather than a millennial or Gen Z, and Bank can write much better than most. Having said that, though, I would press her books on anybody who actually likes this kind of fiction; Bank was well ahead of her time. PUBLISHERS TAKE NOTE: if this were rejacketed for 2023, I think it would be a hit again.

What books stood out for you in May?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: Demon Copperhead #LoveYourLibrary


I was absolutely certain I was going to hate Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. David Copperfield is very probably my least favourite novel of all time (I loathe Dickens, and it’s peak Dickens: idealised hero, massive misogyny, infuriating caricatures, stupidly large cast, incredible self-congratulatory ‘tackling’ of social issues, patronising moralism about poverty). Plus, although I think Kingsolver has written some incredible books (Flight Behaviour, Prodigal Summer) she does have a tendency to preach. This seemed like the worst combination possible, and I only picked this novel up in a fit of morbid curiosity.

Well, I had to think again, because Kingsolver-does-Dickens actually WORKS. How?

First, because of Demon. Every review of this novel has commented on its incredible narrative voice, and although I’m always a little wary of voice-led novels, which can so easily become gimmicky, this one is just fantastic. David C is reimagined here as a boy born to an addict mother in southern Appalachia, who grows up between a series of foster families and is ultimately drawn into drugs himself – there is a particular focus on the opioid crisis, as Kingsolver hammers home the exploitation of poor rural American communities by pharmaceutical companies. Demon is an irresistible narrator, and it’s he who pulls us through this book even when it DOES become too long and IS a bit preachy. On a line-by-line level, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kingsolver write better prose, and she’s no slouch normally. I loved the way she followed the slight disconnection of Demon’s thoughts, as he returns to familiar refrains and picks up on fragments of words, looping through his own mind. ‘It was a Wednesday this all happened, which supposedly is the bad one. Full of woe etc.’ He’s also frequently very funny: ‘They stopped whooping and yelled at me that my friends were up ahead. Thanks, guys. I thought they might have raptured.’

Second, although Kingsolver does become too didactic at times – we’re told on at least four occasions about how awful it is that Americans stereotype rednecks and don’t care about rural poverty – this book does dig deep into questions of place and class that feel relatively fresh to me. It reminded me of Monica Potts’s memoir of growing up in rural Arkansas, The Forgotten Girlswhich examines why life expectancy has declined so quickly for the least educated white Americans, who often live in rural areas. The economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute these early deaths to drug overdoses, suicides and alcoholism, calling them ‘deaths of despair’. The emotional realities of living in such a community are completely evoked by Demon Copperhead. The book occasionally strays a little too close to misery porn for my tastes, but these moments are rare; Kingsolver is adept at picking herself up again and rendering the complexities of Demon’s world, rather than allowing him and his neighbours to collapse into a pitiful mass.

Demon Copperhead also brilliantly reinvents Dickens’ painfully stereotyped secondary cast. I honestly think it has helped me understand what Dickens was trying to do with characters like the Micawbers and Uriah Heep, whom I can’t think about without wincing. Kingsolver’s cast retains the essence of Dickens’s but is so much more real and complicated. I particularly loved what she does with the female characters: Dori (Dora), Angus (Agnes) and Emmy (Little Em’ly – cannot type that without cringing). However, she also does a beautiful job on Fast Forward (Steerforth), capturing his dangerous magnetism, and Tommy Traddles, whom she manages to render as essentially good without making him simply a two-dimensional moral exemplar – such a difficult thing for a writer to pull off. The problems with Demon Copperhead’s cast are the fault of David Copperfield – there are just too many characters, and if I were Kingsolver, I’d have been tempted to cut tertiary figures such as Mouse. This adds to the sense that the book is just too long and self-indulgent in places, as well.

Nevertheless, what Kingsolver has managed to do here is to recreate the remarkable, immersive narrative pull of the best of nineteenth-century fiction. This isn’t my favourite novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist or longlist, but it would be a worthy winner.

I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: Pod #LoveYourLibrary


When I heard that Laline Paull’s Pod had been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, my reaction was as follows: ‘I did not enjoy Paull’s The Bees, which read like a bad YA dystopia, and while I had more mixed feelings about her second novel, The Ice, there’s no way I’m picking up a book by her from the point of view of a dolphin.’  Once Pod was shortlisted for the Prize, and having read some glowing reviews of the novel as well as some terrible ones, I was tempted to give it a try. And on the whole, I’m glad I did. Pod is indeed primarily told from the point of view of a dolphin – spinner dolphin Ea, who is isolated from her pod because she cannot hear the sounds of the ocean in the same way her fellow dolphins do. However! We also get the points of view of MANY other dolphins, including bottlenose Google, who once worked for the military; a ‘lordmale’ wrasse fish; a poisonous fugu fish; a Rorqual whale; and a quasi-parasitic Remora. Lucky us!

As this suggests, this book is quite bizarre, and yet it worked a lot better for me than Paull’s previous foray into anthropomorphism in The Bees. Why? First, dolphins are obviously a lot closer to humans than bees, so Paull’s humanisation of her aquatic characters made a lot more sense in this novel, and she was able to explore how dolphins might think much more convincingly. (As I learnt from Audrey Schulman’s The Dolphin Housedolphins have very advanced linguistic capabilities, although Paull does lean towards making them ‘human’ rather than truly trying to enter the mind of a dolphin, which is probably impossible). Second, Pod doesn’t have the ‘YA dystopian’ elements that made The Bees such a slog for me. There are a few hints of it – character that’s Not Like Other Girls! Instalove! – but only in Ea’s story, and only occasionally. Third, the way that Paull uses point of view in Pod is quite clever, ranging between different creatures and groups that are linked by the ocean. At times, this really feels like watching an episode of Blue Planet, with David Attenborough narrating the characters’ motives – and Paull acknowledges both Blue Planet and Attenborough as inspirations. My favourite chapters were definitely the multivocal ones rather than the ones that focus on Ea.

My other worry about this book was that it was going to be very preachy and simplistic, especially as Paull has form for this in The Ice. But to my surprise, Paull avoids this, and gives us a genuinely fresh perspective on climate crisis. The sheer weirdness of the dolphins’ perspectives means that incidents like plastic pollution, for example, creep up on us rather than being obvious, as we’re also trying to work out why the oceans are changing. And because Paull spends a lot of time exploring the violent social order of the Tursiops pod of bottlenoses that capture Ea – including their frequent gang rapes – the book isn’t simply about dolphins as innocent victims of human action, but has more to say about how societies respond to crisis. (Some reviewers have felt that the amount of sexual violence in Pod is unnecessary, but it made sense to me given how sex functions in dolphin societies. Dolphins do take part in sexual coercion in gangs, but also, sex is central to how dolphins form social connections. It might have been better, though, to dial down the anthropomorphism of Ea here, which would have made the scenes read differently).

I’m not quite sure why this was either longlisted or shortlisted for the Women’s Prize; it’s just so weird, and reads like creative non-fiction rather than a novel. Because of that, I can’t really recommend it as fiction. I guess, for me, novels are about humans, and even eco-critical novels that successfully decentre humanity, like Richard Powers’ The Overstory, work because they are still full of complex people. Pod hobbles itself by writing characters that are not human, and not driven by human motivations, but who are still anthropomorphised. It’s also a slog to read, quite honestly. Nevertheless, I admired Paull’s ambition to write a very different kind of story, even if it didn’t quite come off.

I borrowed Pod from my local library #LoveYourLibrary

‘Who is Macbeth?’: Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton #LoveYourLibrary


Near the beginning of Birnam Wood, Tony, who was once a member of this guerrilla gardening group but left to travel the world some years ago, returns to New Zealand and treats the group to his new ideas: ‘Like, think about the fact that nobody’s willing to use the language of morality any more… Where do you think we got that from? It’s the market. The idea that human choices can ever be without morality, without a moral dimension – that’s pure capitalism.’ Quite rightly, those who actually remained committed to Birnam Wood don’t take kindly to Tony returning to lecture them on political ideology, and are particularly disgusted that he directs a lot of his comments at a female member of the group who’s just cooked dinner for them. But this is the cleverness of Eleanor Catton’s writing; even though Tony’s ideas are torn down, they serve as a central question for this ecological literary thriller. How much do our choices matter?

Francis Spufford’s review of Birnam Wood gets it exactly right when he says ‘What I admired most in ​Birnam Wood was the way that the rapid violence of the climax rises, all of it, out of the deep, patient, infinitely nuanced character-work that comes before. If George Eliot had written a thriller, it might have been a bit like this.’ Even though Catton’s concerns are very modern, the way she goes about writing this book is very, unfashionably, nineteenth-century. Characters are introduced in long set-pieces that digress to tell the reader much of their personal histories, exactly how Eliot did it; Catton’s also not afraid to put long political conversations on the page, in the same way as Eliot has her characters discuss the issues of the day at length (think how Mordecai explains his vision of a better world for Jewish people in Daniel Deronda). But to view these conversations as info-dumps is to get them wrong. Like Eliot, Catton never lets her characters talk without having other agendas in play. Tony doesn’t get to just spout out his views; he has to manage the dynamics of a group that are hostile to him, and ultimately reject what he has to say.

One question that I kept playing with while reading Birnam Wood is ‘who is Macbeth’? It’s a question that has no answer, because this isn’t a straight retelling of Macbeth. But it’s also a question that gets straight to the heart of what Catton is doing here. While it might be easy to blame figures like Robert Lemoine, the amoral billionaire who acts as both benefactor and adversary to Birnam Wood, this isn’t the end of the story. We’re all kind of Macbeth, all vulnerable to receiving a bit of recognition and wanting more, getting corrupted by the darker side of our nature, by Lady Macbeth. Tony blazes back into Birnam Wood believing he knows better, and the plot bears that out, in some ways; he sees through Lemoine when others do not. But he, too, is never that far away from Macbeth. When he discovers what Lemoine is really up to, and that he’s going to be the one to break the story, he reacts: ‘Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ. I am going to be so fucking famous.’

I’m not surprised that many readers have struggled with this novel. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I personally loved how it injected plot back into litfic and serious morality back into thrillers. A gripping, intense ride.

I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary

Three SFF Novels About New Forms of Intelligence: The Mountain in the Sea, Cold People & The Book of Phoenix

I accidentally read three novels in quick succession that deal with new forms of intelligence  – whether that’s genetically modified humans, rapidly evolving octopuses, or AI!

First off, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea. Set in the near-future on the Côn Đảo archipelago, this novel follows a group of scientists researching a colony of octopuses who seem to have accelerated into near-human cultural development. As Nayler explains, octopuses are intelligent, but hampered from transmitting cultural knowledge due to a number of factors: their short lifespans, their solitary lives and the fact that they lay eggs and move on, which stops parents passing down knowledge to their children. The Mountain in the Sea postulates that this group of octopuses have evolved past these barriers, perhaps via RNA editing which allows cephalopods to respond more swiftly to environmental pressures than other classes of animals. This novel also has a lot to say about AI and other forms of consciousness, and why humans find ‘other minds’ so frightening. As this suggests, though, there’s not really enough story in The Mountain in the Sea to make this all hang together as fiction, and although Nayler makes a stab at the end to draw the emotional journey of his central character, Ha, to the fore, it’s too little too late. Reminded me of other cerebral but detached SF about linguistics like China Mieville’s Embassytown (and made me appreciate all over again Ted Chiang’s incredible achievement in ‘Story of Your Life‘, which is both so good on language and alien minds and so intensely moving). I’d read a sequel, though.


An octopus in the aggressive ‘Nosferatu’ pose, raising its mantle.

The Mountain in the Sea proved to be a good aperitif for my next two reads, which are both about genetically modified humans who take on animal characteristics to attain superhuman strength and intelligence. Tom Rob Smith’s Cold People is a thoroughly bizarre piece of work: it starts with the entire population of Earth being ordered to relocate to Antarctica by an invading alien race, who then dissolve anybody who hasn’t made it there by the deadline into fragments of light. You might think the rest of this novel might have something to do with the aliens, but they turn out to be an extravagant deus ex machina for what Smith really wants to explore. First, how humans adapt their society to the extreme conditions of Antarctica, with few natural resources; second, how they relate to the ‘ice-adapted’ people they create through genetic experimentation. Cold People’s main problem as a novel is that it’s, well, so cold. Smith has built a second career as a screenwriter and this cinematic gaze really doesn’t help when translated into a different form. Characters have almost no interiority, and when they do, it’s super-clunky, script notes rather than emotion: ‘When he finally opened his eyes, he was crying. She hadn’t seen him cry since Echo was born. She understood that this bridge reminded him of home and the family he’d lost. “Are you thinking about your family?”‘.

Cold People also dances around the kind of interesting questions that The Mountain in the Sea explores, but never quite engages with them – it’s more interested in setting up a dramatic final showdown rather than really thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of humans as a species. Having said all that, the originality of this novel will make it difficult to forget. Smith cleverly never makes the aliens’ motives clear, so we’re left to wonder, along with the protagonists, whether they are galactic guardians punishing humanity for destroying Earth through climate change or rapacious colonisers herding humans into a reservation so they can exploit Earth themselves. I also liked how Smith resists certain dystopian tropes in his portrayal of the collective caring of some of the Antarctic communities: ‘Weren’t they better people now, better at caring for each other… fairer under even the most testing of circumstances? Maybe these virtues couldn’t ultimately save them from extinction, but they could make the last decades of people some of the best.’

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.


McMurdo station, the biggest Antarctic base

Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, in contrast, is not short on warmth nor passion. It stars an ‘accelerated woman’, Phoenix, who at the start of the novel has spent all her life in ‘Tower 7’, alongside her fellow genetic experiments. Phoenix has African ancestry, but has been severed from her people and her culture. She escapes when she comes into a full realisation of her own powers, burning the tower to the ground and rising from the ashes. Furious at the way she and her friends have been exploited, Phoenix declares that she is now the ‘villain’, and determines to wreak havoc on the other towers across the world. The opening of this novel was originally published as a short story, and it absolutely shows: the first twenty pages or so are bright and arresting. However, the rest of it just didn’t work for me. I hated Okorafor’s novella Binti, but, given her reputation as an Afrofuturist writer, was determined to give her another shot.

Unfortunately, I don’t think her work or her writing is for me. I had similar problems with this than I had with Binti: it’s morally simplistic, and the prose feels unworked, too abbreviated, YA-ish. It’s like a first draft that needs further expansion, and this really made it difficult for me to connect. And in comparison to both The Mountain in the Sea and Cold People, which both have a more complex take on humanity’s flaws and virtues, The Book of Phoenix is happy to tell us that Humans Are Just Bad, which is a SF take I can never get behind. Humans are often terrible, often amazingly good; who’s to say that a future version, or an alien race, won’t have the same contradictions? I did like the framing narrative and the way that Okorafor employs oral history and storytelling tropes, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the follow-on, Who Fears Death, unless somebody can convince me it’s totally different from Binti and The Book of Phoenix.

Have you read any good SF or speculative fiction recently?

April Superlatives, 2023

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…


… Know My Name by Chanel Miller. Miller wrote the famous ‘Emily Doe’ victim impact statement after being raped by Stanford student Brock Turner; after much soul-searching, she decided to waive her anonymity when publishing this memoir. I wanted to read this because I was so impressed by Miller’s incredible statement, but my expectations were relatively modest: I wondered how much more there was to say, and whether Miller could sustain the power of her long essay across hundreds of pages. Turns out, she can and she does. As she did in her statement, Miller both tells us an intimately personal story of dealing with trauma, and positions her experience against the wider social context within which it occurred. Miller has become a ‘lighthouse’ for so many victims both because of the relative unusualness of her case – less than 1% of rapes in the US lead to felony convictions – and because of her own ability to speak up, which she thoughtfully ascribes to both her own personal courage and her solid, supportive base.

I was especially struck by Miller’s recognition that the ‘future’ that Brock ‘lost’ when he chose to rape her is a privilege only afforded to elite, straight, able-bodied white men: ‘On the day the verdict of my case was read, a Washington Post article quoted Brock saying that in ten years he hoped to be in residency to be a surgeon. His sister wrote, Goodbye to the Olympics. Goodbye to being an orthopaedic surgeon… At the time of the assault, he had worked as a lifeguard for two years and then at a store called Speedy Feet. But I never read this anywhere. He was not forced to acknowledge the facts of his present. He was talked about in terms of his lost potential, what he would never be, rather than what he is. They spoke as if his future was patiently waiting for him to step into it.’ As Miller writes, ‘let’s imagine a Hispanic nineteen-year-old working in the kitchen of the fraternity commits the same crime. Does this story end differently? Does the Washington Post call him a surgeon?’

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…


The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor. Full review coming soon, but let’s file this one – and Okorafor’s work in general – under Just Not For Me.

The Most Disappointing Memoir I Read This Month Was…


… Thunderstone by Nancy Campbell. I loved Campbell’s The Library of Ice and Fifty Words For Snow so much that I picked up Thunderstone even though the blurb didn’t especially draw me in (and because I LOVED the cover). This was an error. Thunderstone is an edited version of a journal Campbell kept when she was living in a static caravan in a strip of woodland near a canal outside Oxford. The setting resonated with me: I used to live in Littlemore and could cycle into Oxford along the river, so although this was clearly not the same bit where Campbell lived, I remember the communities that staked out space in the woods there, and reading this brought back some things I had forgotten. However, I’ve almost never read a novel that works for me told in short-ish diary entries, and non-fiction seems to be no exception. I wouldn’t have decided to read this if I’d known it was written in this style, as I find it works against establishing any pace or thematic through-lines. Nevertheless, Campbell’s writing is still both beautiful and precise, and others may get on with this memoir much better than I did. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Oddest Psychological Thriller I Read This Month Was…

… No Place To Hide by JS Monroe. This starts off feeling very much like a typical example of the genre. Adam is now a successful paediatrician, happily married with two children, but his past secrets from his time as a medical student at Cambridge come back to haunt him when a woman he used to know suddenly reappears.  But then it switches into more interesting territory, as Adam’s Cambridge friend Ji introduces him to the dark web and suggests that his life may be being filmed as part of a horrific game that is linked to what happened at the university all these years ago. This gripping section of the book enters a kind of Black Mirror space – I was especially reminded of the excellent ‘Shut Up and Dance’. But then, it wheels back round to a pretty unsatisfying psychological thriller resolution, where a lot seems to have been swept under the carpet. Tonally, the book also feels like it’s stuck between several kinds of narrative. The writing is noticeably more ambitious than is the case with most psychological thrillers, and Monroe seems to be attempting a nuanced, literary portrait of Adam and his social circle. But then, once the plot kicks in, much of this is lost, and Adam becomes more simplistically heroic. Having said all this, I would read more by Monroe. I admired his attempt to do something different with the thriller genre, even if it didn’t quite work for me. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Debut Novel (About Trying to Be A Good Person) I Read This Month Was…


… We Meant Well by Erum Shazia Hasan, one of my most anticipated releases of 2023. Maya worked in international development for more than a decade, running an orphanage that serves the fictional African village of Likanni. For the past few years, she’s retreated from the field, getting married and having a child of her own, overseeing operations from the United States. But when her colleague Marc is accused of raping Lele, a village girl who’s employed by Maya’s company, Maya’s ties to the locals, who affectionately call her ‘Bigabosse’, mean that she has to fly over to handle the situation. Unsurprisingly, Maya encounters a knotted ethical tangle. Did Marc rape Lele? If the accusation becomes public, will bringing justice to this community mean destroying the work they are doing with orphans and destitute children? And what kind of justice does Lele herself want? We Meant Well is a compulsive read that digs deeply into moral tensions, but its secondary cast is stereotyped, each character positioned to espouse a particular world-view; long discussions with Maya leave us in no doubt of where they stand. It reminded me strongly of Nikita Lalwani’s The Village, but I think Lalwani’s book is more subtle, vivid and challenging. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling debut. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

The Other Best Debut Novel (About Trying to Be A Good Person) I Read This Month Was…


… Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong. Reed is a young Asian-American man who wants to drop out of college to commit himself to activism full-time, disillusioned by the support of the Asian-American community for Asian-American Peter Liang, a NYPD officer who shot unarmed black man Akai Gurley. (This novel is set in 2016, which I didn’t clock at first, and was confused when Reed kept calling himself a millennial – though he is still almost young enough to be Gen Z). However, his mother, once the leader of a Korean-Black coalition during the 1992 LA uprising, has some lessons to teach him. There’s a slightly satirical edge to Which Side Are You On, with Reed often tangling himself up in jargon in a way that is unintentionally (on his part, but not on the author’s) funny. Going to a K-Town club, for example, he witnesses two separate queues: ‘one with a long line of the subaltern clubbers, the other for the normatively beautiful and very rich… I tripped on a broken sidewalk… muttered a little curse at the neglected pavement and this pedestrian-hostile city’. ‘You sound like Adorno if he, like, worked out his ideas on Twitter’, his friend CJ tells him.

Which Side Are You On is also cleverly written as a stream of continuous action, as Reed tries to find out about his parents’ history of organising while all his mother wants to do is take him to a Korean spa and make him get a professional haircut. What his parents want him to understand, it turns out, is that building messy, difficult relationships with real people is where activism actually takes place, rather than holding everyone, including yourself, up to impossible standards. Which Side Are You On was a little too neat for me to truly love it; some of the secondary cast are reduced to stereotypes, and I wanted to feel Reed’s relationship with his mother more rather than be told about it (it reminded me a little of Michelle Zauner’s depiction of her mother in Crying In H Mart, which was much more emotionally raw). Still, it’s SO refreshing to read a book like this about inter-generational activism rather than the usual conservative parents/woke child story, Wong has loads to teach us, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

The Strangest Novel I Read This Month Was…


… The Furrows by Namwali Serpell. This hallucinatory novel about a sister, C’s, grief following the loss of her seven-year-old brother Wayne works emotionally rather than logically: if you want to try it, I’d suggest taking C’s refrain ‘I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt’ very literally. The first half of the book takes us through a series of what may be mismemories, parallel realities or nightmares as C repeats the story of Wayne’s death and her later encounter, as an adult, with an man called Wayne, played out in different settings but always with the same recurring motifs. I admired Serpell’s craft in this section of the novel but found it difficult to turn back to it whenever I put it down. This changed during the last hundred pages or so, when I found myself eager to read on to unravel the puzzle-box mystery of the multiple Waynes that wander into and through this narrative. I also loved the repeated imagery of the furrows, and the way that Serpell ties some of her ideas together in a passage that suggests ‘History is a mop’.  The final paragraphs are deliberately oblique, but I thought they were brilliant – Serpell definitely does make us feel the crashing, destructive nature of sudden death. It’s difficult to write much more about this text without ruining it, but it worked for me despite my entrenched suspicion of magical realist adjacent stuff. I borrowed this book from my local library #LoveYourLibrary.

The Best YA Novel I Read This Month Was…

… The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes. I’ve read a lot of upbeat YA romance titles in the last couple years that explore the experiences of queer teens of colour, but The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School is distinctive in not only centring the voice of a Mexican-American lesbian, but in digging into questions of class and cultural privilege. When the book opens, our narrator, Yami, is in a precarious position: she’s transferred to Catholic school along with her slightly younger brother, Cesar, to keep him out of trouble, but because he’s got a scholarship and she hasn’t, she needs to find work to cover the fees. Meanwhile, her mother only seems to care about Cesar’s potential, and while Yami secretly feels she’s her father’s favourite, he was deported to Mexico some time ago and they mostly communicate by text. Even worse, Yami is certain that if her mother finds out she’s a lesbian, she’ll kick her out – so she also needs to build up a secret fund to allow her to rent her own apartment if necessary. I blazed through this sweet, fun book, but I do wish that the tensions that marked its first half had been more convincingly explored in its second, rather than smoothed over in a way that felt a bit untrue to the earlier character dynamics. So, not perfect, but definitely worth reading. Also, LOVE the cover. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 4th.

The Novel I Felt Had Been Marketed Most Confusingly This Month Was…


… Rosewater by Liv Little. The (beautiful) cover and marketing of Little’s debut made me think it was going to be literary fiction, perhaps something akin to Raven Leilani’s Luster – and this made it one of my most anticipated 2023 releases. It would have been helpful to know going in that this is much more straightforward, and yes, I would shelve it next to Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie or Lizzie Damilola Blackburn’s Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband?, though it refreshingly turns away from the very heterosexual and heteronormative worlds of those novels. Elsie, the protagonist, is a British-Guyanese dyke and unemployed poet. At the start of the novel she’s been evicted from her flat and forced to move in with best friend Juliet, who works as a teacher by day and cam girl at night. She’s a bit of a player, cutting a swathe through women on dating apps as an adult just as she used to kiss a stream of girls in the toilets at school, but doesn’t know how to get serious about a relationship. I loved the depiction of queer female community and the fact that this is a ‘disaster woman’ novel that focuses on a protagonist who’s looking for other women rather than being used by unreliable men. However, near the end, Rosewater struggles to deal with everything it wants to talk about, and there are two melodramatic and unnecessary plot twists. It fell a bit short for me, and I suspect Little’s next novel will be better. My full review is on GoodreadsI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Did you have any standout reads in April? What was the best book you read this month? What was the worst?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2023: The Marriage Portrait #LoveYourLibrary


I was one of the readers who, as a long-time Maggie O’Farrell fan, was disappointed by Hamnet: I thought the characterisation was stale, the narrative familiar from many earlier historical novels set in the early modern period, and, most deadly of all, it didn’t really make me feel anything. The Marriage Portrait, therefore, O’Farrell’s version of the short life of the Italian noblewoman Lucrezia de’ Medici, rumoured murdered by her husband at fifteen in 1561, puts me in a somewhat difficult position. Intellectually I can see that it shares most of the faults of its predecessor, and yet I found it totally captivating.

The first thing to understand about The Marriage Portrait is that, in my opinion, it’s less a fictional response to the real biography of Lucrezia than a response to Robert Browning’s 1842 poem ‘My Last Duchess’. This for me explains O’Farrell’s decision to remove her novel somewhat from historical fact: she’s thinking of her Lucrezia as the foil to Browning’s depiction of Duke Alfonso, revealed through numerous small details such as the white mule that Lucrezia rides and the fact that O’Farrell, like Browning, imagines that she was strangled rather than poisoned. I’m not bothered about these discrepancies: as ever, when I read historical fiction, I’m interested in how the writer uses it to have a conversation with the past, and whether they are really inhabiting the earlier period or are just using it as window-dressing for an essentially modern story. The more history I read, the harder I find it to catch true ‘anachronism’: it’s so hard to say that something could never have happened. This is especially true in a novel like O’Farrell’s that deliberately (and wisely) adopts modern language to convey the feeling of being alive in the sixteenth century.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t criticise choices writers make about how to present the past to a modern audience, and there are problems with The Marriage Portrait. Like Hamnet, it stereotypes its secondary cast. Of course Lucrezia’s sisters are bitchy; of course Alfonso has one plain, tattling sister and one beautiful, reckless one; of course Lucrezia’s maid, Emilia, exists only to be loyal and useful to her. Lucrezia’s parents, Cosimo and Eleonora, do rather better, with O’Farrell touching on how different the dynamics of their marriage are compared to Lucrezia’s forced union, and showing how they simultaneously care about their daughter and cannot allow themselves to listen to her fears. But we get to see so very little of them. Moreover, there are dozens of historical novels (and indeed fantasy novels that draw on historical tropes) that tell this kind of story, about a young woman facing an arranged marriage, her wedding night, and the controlling abuse of her husband. There is absolutely nothing new here.

But having said that. Somehow O’Farrell makes this material fresh again. Somehow she so deeply inhabits Lucrezia’s psyche that even though she ought, like Agnes in Hamnet, to be a hopelessly uninteresting ‘strong female character’ inserted into a sixteenth-century setting, she becomes real beyond the annoying trappings of her archetype (loves painting and exploring, hates embroidery, check). O’Farrell finally manages to bring what’s so distinctive about her contemporary fiction to a historical novel. She gives herself time: she allows us to really live through the key moments of Lucrezia’s life with her. And yet, The Marriage Portrait remains riveting, as we’re drawn through it by a thread of dread, knowing the fate that Lucrezia is going to meet. All the emotional intensity that I didn’t find in Hamnet is so present here.

Should The Marriage Portrait win the Women’s Prize for Fiction? Definitely not. Is it worth reading, even if you didn’t like Hamnet? Definitely yes.

Thanks to the library for my copy of The Marriage Portrait, which I definitely didn’t want to buy in hardback #LoveYourLibrary.

March Superlatives, 2023

Here we go again! Quite a positive bunch of Superlatives this time round…

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…


… Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks. Set at the dawn of the Thatcher era, this follows a young British-Jamaican woman, Yemaye, as she raves in dub reggae clubs and encounters the hard side of the British state she calls ‘Babylon’. This isn’t a perfect novel, but if it was, it probably wouldn’t be as good. I’d love to see this win the Women’s Prize. My full review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…


… And Put Away Childish Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is the third in a thematically-linked set of three novellas by Tchaikovsky published in the UK by Rebellion Publishing; I liked the first, Walking to Aldebaran, so I thought I would try this one. And Put Away Childish Things is a portal fantasy where a man stumbles into the world of the beloved children’s series his grandmother wrote (think Narnia) and encounters unexpected horrors. To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked up a book with this blurb if it wasn’t by Tchaikovsky, whom I also know and admire from his Children of Time trilogy. I adore the idea of stumbling into an imaginary world that’s come alive but have found that the execution never works for me. People always seem to end up in the tweest of children’s literature rather than entering the genuinely frightening and original landscapes that characterise many children’s books. The whole thing feels silly to me when I want it to be scary. Sadly, And Put Away Childish Things falls into exactly the same traps. Probably a Just Not for Me rather than a novella that’s objectively bad, but I would love to see a writer properly and seriously explore the imaginative spaces of childhood. I received a free proof copy of this novella from the publisher for review.

The Best Book About Siblinghood I Read This Month Was…


Homesick by Jennifer Croft. Amy and Zoe grow up in their own world, homeschooled after Zoe develops a brain tumour, constructing their own universe of shared references, words and games. But when Amy leaves for college at fifteen after a sudden tragedy, the sisters’ childhood abruptly comes to an end. Homesick was first published in Spanish as Serpientes y escaleras (Snakes and Ladders) before being published in the US in 2019 by Unnamed Press as a memoir with photographs and then published in the UK in 2022 by Charco Press in this novel-form with no images. And the first half of this text, where we are also bound by the tight limitations of Amy and Zoe’s early years, is mesmerising. It’s remarkably elevated from the many novels that touch on sisterhood and growing up: I think because of the serious, concentrated attention that Croft gives to the girls’ experiences, refusing to sentimentalise or to slip into cliches about childhood or about ‘opposite’ or competing siblings. It resonated deeply with me as somebody who was only homeschooled for a very short time in my childhood, but nevertheless grew up very close to my younger sister after moving from the US to Britain, uprooted from all our friends and cultural references, and then ending up living in a pretty rural location. While I was reading this first half, I was sure this was going to be a five-star read for me. It’s a shame, therefore, that it peters out somewhat in the second half, feeling thinner and rushed after the slow, intense build of the sections that focus on childhood, and I didn’t feel that Croft quite tied everything together thematically.  Still, probably the best thing I’ve read on this kind of siblinghood. This novel has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. I borrowed it from the library #LoveYourLibrary

My Best Reread This Month Was…


… Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, which I first read in 2003 (when I was Griet’s age at the start of the novel, ouch) and re-read again in 2004 and 2011. This re-read was inspired by visiting the Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam and finally seeing ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ in real life. I’ve always found Chevalier a bit hit-and-miss, but for my money this is a really good novel, easily her best. It’s so interesting that she wrote it in a compressed time-frame because she was pregnant; the straightforward, elegant narrative works so well, and makes Griet’s narration so convincing. This time round, I found myself reflecting on how many ‘rules’ of fiction this hugely successful novel breaks. Most obviously, Griet is an almost entirely passive protagonist. She has little agency and her actions don’t drive the story forward. Chevalier does pick up on some quiet moments when Griet’s decision to share an observation with Vermeer is significant, but these are limited. But Griet works so well for me as a character precisely because of her lack of agency. First, it’s realistic; second, it makes her much more sympathetic, as we see how she’s caught between the demands of her different employers. She has no wish to risk her place as a maid, a key source of income for her family, but she has no choice. I’ve also always loved the melancholy ending.

The Best SF Novel I Read This Month Was…


… Frontier by Grace Curtis. This satisfyingly strange debut novel augments its SF setting with western vibes. It opens when an escape pod crashes into the parched landscape of a future Earth, and our protagonist steps out into an unfamiliar land. As she searches for a way to communicate with Noelle, the lover she left behind, she encounters drug-carrying tortoises, threatening saints, complex barter systems and apartments built within the ruins of an old spaceship. Curtis constructs the novel through a series of vignettes, and we often see our protagonist through the eyes of other characters. This kind of quest narrative rarely works for me, but it does here because Curtis uses it as a way of letting us walk through the world she’s created, and explore the different societies people have built up since the vast majority of the population left Earth. Despite the devastation caused by climate change and the presence of fundamentalist religion, Frontier feels bright and fun rather than grim: Curtis enjoys playing with western tropes, and the focus is on how we rebuild rather than on how we destroy. It’s the atmosphere of this world that will remain with me rather than the specifics of the story, but I look forward to whatever Curtis writes next. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Book Set In A Convent I Read This Month Was…


… The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier. As you may know, I am a big fan of novels set in convents. This one is a quasi-historical novel set in a version of Renaissance Florence, though it’s difficult to pin down precisely – the book at the centre of the novel is inspired by the fifteenth-century Voynich manuscript, but the story and setting also reminded me strongly of Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts, set in a late sixteenth-century Ferrara convent. Like Bridget Collins’s The Binding, this is basically fantasy dressed up as history. This decision serves Clothier well, as she is able to infuse magic into her story almost imperceptibly at first. Our protagonist is Beatrice, the convent librarian, who comes across the titular book and gradually realises both that there is something strange about it and that other people want it very badly. But one of the strengths of Clothier’s novel – and something that often flourishes in a convent setting – is the way she develops the wider cast of convent sisters. Mother Chiara is especially vivid and interesting, but I also enjoyed many of the women who get less page-time, like Hildegard. For me, the first half of this novel was strongest, beautifully immersive. It became a little more familiar when the pace picks up, and we get a rather cartoonish religious villain. However, there’s just enough weirdness to stop it becoming too simplistically emancipatory. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was…


… The Lost Night by Andrea Bartz. Lindsay’s best friend Edie killed herself in 2009; ten years on, Lindsay discovers an unsettling video that suggests that she might have been involved in Edie’s death, and given that she can’t remember chunks of that night, she doesn’t know how to prove otherwise. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t spend my early twenties in a Brooklyn party loft, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that’s so evocative of that particular life stage for millennials of my age. There are a ton of books about nostalgia for the late teens and university years, but Bartz is so good at capturing what’s particularly special and difficult about striking out on your own, when you think you’re really grown-up but are still a very young adult. Lindsay’s growing horror as she starts to doubt herself is gripping and disorientating, too. As ever with thrillers (Bartz’s We Were Never Here commits the same crime) this has a bit of a silly twist ending, but it’s worth reading for the central chunk of the story.

Did you have any stand-out reads this month? Anything you hated? Anything you loved?

Two Debut Novels Set Around The Time I Was Born: Kingdomtide and American Spy


Set in the autumn of 1986, this peculiar novel is divided into two strands: one, related in first person by Cloris Waldrip, an elderly woman who is trying to survive in the Montana wilderness after a plane crash that killed her beloved husband; and two, related in third person by Debra Lewis, an alcoholic park ranger who recently got divorced after her ex-husband was prosecuted for bigamy (or ‘trigamy’ as she puts it once she finds out about his two other wives). Kingdomtide moves between the harsher register of a narrative akin to Jean’s in Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country and a quirkier, more heartwarming story about misfits banding together. At first, I thought this split was between Lewis’s and Cloris’s halves of the story, but it’s not. Much of the quirkiness is in Lewis’s chapters and, although I could never quite forget that Rye Curtis was writing Cloris’s voice, she also has some of the most resonant lines about life, change, time and the many different selves we inhabit along the way:

When I was the librarian at Clarendon Elementary School I often watched a wall clock tick away the minutes of the day with not much else on my mind other than the passage of time itself… I had the idea that my library was where time went when it was worn out and needed some shut-eye.  I thought that to live forever a person would only need to sit in that library and watch that wall clock. I retired and left Clarendon Elementary School and forgot about that wall clock. Well, I can sure tell you it did not forget about me and suddenly there I was out in that wilderness an old woman.

The slow development of the relationship between Cloris and a fugitive man who assists her as she learns to live in the wilderness has all the emotional depth that, for me, Lewis’s sections lacked. It doesn’t help that Lewis’s group all seem to come with a couple of tics that define their characterisation and become incredibly repetitive: drinking merlot from a thermos, saying ‘Goddam’, using ‘koojee’ as an expression of surprise, chalking their hands. I really hate to agree with the majority of Goodreads reviewers, but I think this could have been a brilliant novella about Cloris alone, as Lewis and her very-weird-in-a-writerly-way friends (see also: Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness) bring nothing to the table.


Set mostly in the first half of 1987, this unexpectedly good debut follows Marie Mitchell, a black FBI agent who is recruited by a different organisation to get close to Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso, and bring him down. American Spy is both morally and emotionally complex: Marie is not an entirely sympathetic character, but we understand how she is driven by the death of her sister, who dreamed of working as an intelligence agent, into a career path that she never really wanted and is not convinced is the right thing to do. She also relates her own ambitions back to the choices her father made: he could have been a grocer, like his father, but chose to become a police officer, which meant that she and her sister ‘grew up with a little money, and that put us… not exactly ahead, but it put us somewhere.’ There’s a subtle undercurrent in Lauren Wilkinson’s novel that considers how being black in America is always to be living undercover: one of Marie’s favourite novels is Nella Larson’s Passing, and she remembers a moment she shared with her father at her FBI graduation, when he told her: ‘… it’s easier if they think you’re one of them. It’s easier to work from the inside. That’s what I try to do. I’ve been a spy in this country for as long as I can remember.’

Juxtaposed against this personal journey is the equally fascinating story of Marie’s relationship with Thomas Sankara, a figure who is not particularly well known today but was hailed as a revolutionary leader in the 1980s, focusing on a nationwide literary and vaccination campaign in Burkina Faso, cutting government spending to reduce the country’s international debt burden, building infrastructure projects and outlawing female genital mutilation, forced marriage and polygamy. At the same time, though, his government was authoritarian, outlawing trade unions, cracking down on protests and operating a one-party system – but the CIA infiltrate it to press forward a ‘pro-democracy’ candidate of their choice. Wilkinson isn’t afraid to have Thomas and Marie wrestle directly with these apparent contradictions: as he says to her, ‘Democracy isn’t a thing that you conform a society to. We can’t just import a system from the West. Real democracy has to develop in response to the needs of that society.’

It’s a shame that this intelligent and gripping novel is lumbered with such a clumsy framing narrative: Marie is apparently writing all this down as a direct address to her twin sons. I almost gave up on American Spy during the first 75 pages because this mode of narration is so confusing, and because the multiple flashbacks are badly handled. However, from that point on, the novel streamlines, Marie mostly stops referring to her sons and it becomes so much better. Honestly, I think the sons should have been cut completely, both because it would have sorted out the structure and because it would have removed a somewhat dubious authorial decision that I can’t spell out without spoilers. But if this all sounds good to you otherwise, press on through the opening chapters: it’s worth it.

Two Books From the Women’s Prize Longlist: I’m A Fan and Fire Rush

After my disappointment with the Women’s Prize longlist, it was great to read these two books, which are both such worthy longlistees. Has it made me feel better about the longlist as a whole? Not really, no. But here are two novels that definitely bring the sort of thing I’m looking for:


The unnamed narrator of Sheena Patel’s I’m A Fan is documenting her one-off, not-quite-relationship with ‘the man I want to be with’ while continuously consuming every single thing his other lover, ‘the woman I am obsessed with’, posts online. The man is married, but his wife has a minimal online presence, so the woman becomes the focus of her obsession instead. Interspersed between her stories of these two people are her reflections on whiteness, misogyny and the colonial gaze, and mini-descriptions of art exhibitions she’s been to and actually connected with, unlike the curated grid of the woman’s Instagram.

I worried a little about I’m A Fan because I don’t get on with books that are incredibly keen to tell us how bad the Social Media is for us (classic examples: Patricia Lockwood’s novel No One Is Talking About This and Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror). But that really isn’t what this book is about. It’s actually the best chronicle of an all-consuming affair that I’ve ever read – the only novel that even comes close in its willingness to show the ugliness of this kind of power play is Louise O’Neill’s Almost Lovebut I’m A Fan is much better. What Patel also does, so cleverly, is to let us hear our narrator talk, quite rightly and so intelligently, about the injustices caused by hegemonic whiteness but also let us see how this is a register she slips into to escape from her own emotions. As she tells us herself, speaking of her lover, ‘I enjoy his deference to me when I talk seemingly authoritatively about race as if I know how the world really works because it makes me seem more important than I actually am. When I feel like I’m losing the argument I can say witheringly, you just don’t understand, which shuts him up and covers up for the fact that I’m not sure how things are either.’  This is not to say that her emotions about her relationship are authentic and her emotions about racial injustice are academic – both cut to the core – but that talking about race in this kind of language is much safer, and allows her to claw back some of the self-esteem she’s lost through her lover’s treatment of her.

When I started I’m A Fan, I also worried that some of the narrator’s arguments about structural racism were both hugely important but a bit jarring in a novel – they didn’t seem to sit right against the rest of her vignettes. But, as I went on, I saw, as I argued above, that she slips into this register when she feels especially vulnerable. I was also fascinated by how she weaves her long, repetitive cyber-stalking of the ‘woman I am obsessed with’ into theories that are both totally on the money and a great way to justify her obsession. ‘In an interview, she says she spent almost $100 on eight heritage apples and it is obvious she was unaware of the problematic nature of admitting this, which implies she doesn’t know the value of money divided by industrial bodily labour and time.’  The narrator’s analysis may be right, but it also reveals how much easier it is, sometimes, to say something is problematic or capitalist or hegemonic, when actually what we want to say is, I’m hurt. I’m in pain. I am lonely. ‘I want a hungry press, hungry for me,’ she writes, ‘rather than jumping for scraps of attention like some rabid dog scrabbling around in the pit of my stomach desperate for someone to listen to what I have to say.’


Yamaye is a young, British-Jamaican woman living in Norwood who finds her true self raving at underground dub reggae clubs at the dawn of the Thatcher era. Alongside her two best friends Asase, also Caribbean, and Rumer, an Irish Traveller, she skanks the night away, practicing her own rapping at home. Dub music threads its way through her entire life, but it isn’t the only refrain; she’s also haunted by her muma’s singing, and images of women who jumped from slave ships during an earlier era, floating down through the water. Fire Rush, Jacqueline Crooks’ debut novel, is driven by its incredible set-pieces. The first chapter was originally excerpted separately by Granta and it’s easy to see why: it’s an amazing piece of writing. But Crooks returns to this intensity of voice again and again throughout the novel, when Yamaye joins an ANL (Anti-Nazi League) march, when she and Asase are attacked by the river, and when Yamaye finally gets to perform her own dub riddims in Bristol. It dramatises what Paul Gilroy says about reggae in his classic There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack (1987), showing how crucial it is to black diasporic culture and how it works as an art form: as Gilroy writes, ‘Both soul and reggae consciously reconstruct and celebrate their own histories through complex series of answer records in which different artists criticise and comment on each other’s work.’

Fire Rush was sixteen years in the making, and I think this is the source of both its great power and its slight disjointedness. The first chapter stands slightly apart from the rest of the book, and you can almost see how much it’s been reworked and rethought. Most of the novel has such energy, but it’s in the linking sections that its pace falters slightly, although never for long. Interestingly, it’s also in these sections that the patois recedes, as if Crooks has temporarily lost track of Yamaye’s voice. But she always roars back again. I loved the way Crooks traces the links Yamaye makes in her mind, showing how closely she is still tied to Jamaica, a country she has never visited, and how she understands her experience as continuous rather than as dislocated, because it’s visible and audible all around her in Britain.

This is a second-generation immigrant experience that offers something different from the stories we more often hear from younger British writers of colour (like the narrator of I’m A Fan, for example), but it’s also so well-written, tying Yamaye’s wordless emotions into the stories and music that scaffold her life. ‘I switch off the light and go to the balcony [of her dad’s flat in Norwood]. I look out beyond the tower blocks at the wastelands and the brickfields where hidden trenches and defensive walls were dug up along with the graves of ancient people, weighed down with lead weights and gold. You can’t keep the past down, I say to myself.’  Arriving in Bristol: ‘We drive past old warehouses at the front of the Floating Harbour… I imagine the ships that sailed from this harbour; sailing to Africa, taking its people to the Caribbean; the women sitting on deck, rubbing salt into their sores, singing air and fire alchemy. I smell the ocean in the distance, salty, bitter. Muma’s voice: Let me carry you across the sea.’

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.